The 2019 edition of The Pioneer, Fuelled by Nutri-Grain is shaping to be the best yet, with strong teams at the front of each of the main categories - and an epic course set to challenge any rider who is pinning a number on next week.
 
Close to 400 riders from 24 countries will line up in Queenstown on Sunday for the prologue at Moke Lake and will go on to cover 440km across six days with 13,000m of climbing that will test the legs, but deliver stunning views across the Southern Alps and Central Otago trails.


 
While many will be focused purely on finishing and perhaps taking in a few of the sights along the way, the front of the field will be head down and chewing the handlebars as they race for overall and category honours.
 
Race Director Danielle Sherman can’t wait to see the week unfold.
 
“The reputation of The Pioneer is spreading around the world and beginning to attract a higher quality of international riders to take on some of the best New Zealand has to offer and there is no doubt that 2019 is going to be the best so far in that regard.
 
“It also looks like we have a real trans-Tasman rivalry in just about every category this year, and we love a battle with our friends from across the ditch. Off the bike we will show them a wonderful Kiwi welcome and deliver an amazing week, but on the bike, I think they are in for a heck of a battle with our leading New Zealand combinations.”
 
Leading the way is the return of defending open men’s champions Michael Vink and Tim Rush (Onya Bike North Otago), open women’s champions Amy Hollamby and Kate McIlroy (Stonewood Homes) and mixed champions Joe Skerman and Josie Wilcox (JoJo).


 
Vink is fresh of winning back to back Tour of Southland titles, a result he sees as a good omen to also repeat at The Pioneer.

“I won the tour of Southland last year, and obviously that set me up pretty well for the Pioneer. I think multi-stage mountain bike racing is physically more like racing road racing than anything else mountain bike related, so it should suit me pretty well. The key is recovery, and I've certainly done a lot of racing this year, so I'll be super fit going into it and I'm not afraid of six hard days back to back, which is what the Pioneer is.”


Rush has also highlighted his good form coming into the event, fresh off an impressive win at the Whaka 100, in the process relegating leading Aussie and Pioneer contender Brendan Johnston to second.

In the women’s open category, Hollamby and McIlroy will be tough to beat, all the more so knowing that they are likely to be stronger than last year, even though former Olympian and star of athletics, triathlon and road cycling McIlroy these days balances fulltime work with a mix of road, mountain bike and multi-sport events.

“I am definitely coming into the 2019 Pioneer with much more confidence than last year when I had only been on a mountain bike for six weeks.  I have raced a few more mountain bike events – Nationals, Karapoti and Port to Port in Aussie which has helped improve my skill level and am generally feeling more confident about what mountain bike racing is all about. 
 
“The last six months I have primarily been on my road bike, racing around the country in the Calder Stewart Series/North Island Series and the Taiwan KOM Challenge.  It's definitely a balancing act with work-racing-training - trying to stay healthy and not get too tired isn't always the easiest thing to get right.”
 
Josie Wilcox and Joe Skerman won a fascinating duel with two-time champions Kate Fluker and Mark Wiliams, moving ahead on the final stage into Queenstown. Preparation has been a little sketchy for Wilcox, but she can’t wait to return.
 
“For me it's been a challenging time of the year. I've been completing placement hours fulltime at the hospital (radiography school) as well as juggling final graduating exams, interviews and training. Then three weeks ago I fractured my finger. This hasn't stopped me though and I've been working hard on the bike under the guidance of Mark Leishman.”
 
Skerman is juggling running two dairy farms in the Manawatu and raising three young boys with his adventure racing wife, but he is fuelled by great memories of last year.
 
“My memories of last year were finishing the final stage. I will never forget it; it was my hardest day of riding ever. I was completely exhausted not knowing if we had won or not but was just so relieved to have got over the finish line and to stop riding. 
 
“There were lots of learnings from last year as it was our first stage race. I learned that everyone wakes up each day during the Pioneer going "oh my god I’m cooked" but once you get racing the body fires up.” 
 
While competition will be fierce in the open categories, there will be great rivalries started and renewed in the master’s categories also, and it is a former road riding legend leading the way in Gordon McCauley in the men’s masters with teammate Jarrod Harris. McCauley was fearless throughout his career, winning a medal at the Commonwealth Games and earning a reputation as one of the toughest riders on the planet, that reputation will be put to the test over six challenging days on the trails of Central Otago.

Founding riders return to The Pioneer

The Founding Riders club is further whittled down to just 14 remaining riders who are back and yet to miss a Pioneer. Amongst them are mixed stars Kate Fluker and Mark Williams and former winners or podium finishers Erin Greene, Nina McVicar and Johnny Van Leeuwen.
 
“Our founding riders are the heart and soul of what this event is all about, such an amazing group who continue to show incredible commitment and passion for this event,” said Sherman.
 
“While the elites may get the glory, for us as event organisers it is those further down the field who are our biggest inspiration and in many ways the reason we get out of bed in the morning to work on events like The Pioneer, they are all amazing, each with their own back story and motivation to come and have the week of their lives in a stunning part of the world.”
 
2019 Founding Riders:

Michael Booth, Kylie Burrowns, David Ferrar, Kate Fluker, Erin Greene, Mike Holland, Nina McVicar, Andrew Percival, Mike Sangster, Gianluca Valsenti, Johnny Van Leeuwen, Mark Williams, Kent Wilson, Graeme Young.